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The story of Soap For Hope

Leadership lessons from being in a gang

Stefan Phang, Regional Director Sustainability Diversey Inc. has worked at a senior level for 20 years. He shares with us stories of how his passion to protect children has helped him become the impactful leader that he is today.

Who or what has been pivotal in your personal story and how has this impacted your leadership?

I can’t pinpoint a certain moment in life that that is pivotal, it's more like a series of experiences that have helped me reach where I am today and say that for the rest of my life I’m going to dedicate myself to child protection. Helping people to not make that heart-breaking decision of selling their kids to make a living. I grew up in a small village in Penang, Malaysia. I came from a broken family and I was fostered by an old Malay man, who was a retired sailor. So I grew up in an old Kampung house with no electricity and a hole in the ground for the toilet. I was very small as a child and was always bullied. I guess this is where my passion to protect kids comes from. At age 9 I joined a gang to protect myself and others from being bullied.

I believe that a lot of my leadership traits today came from my gang days. Gang leaders have great leadership skills. They have their own code of honour, they are loyal to their people and their people are loyal to them. If you colour outside the lines you get whacked back in line. The regime is harsh but there is still a sense of compassion and they protect their people. They understand how their environment works and find creative solutions to solve problems and thrive. My gang leaders protected me, and I learned how to protect the little ones I was given to take care of during my five years of gang-life.

In 2007, I visited Cambodia for the first time, and I was involved with the volunteer group International Child Protection Network (ICPN). In child protection we have the three P's and the three R's; Prosecute-Protect-Prevent and Rescue-Recovery-Reintegrate. After law enforcement have rescued, they need help to support the kids recover and reintegrate, while also prosecuting the offenders. Rescuing large groups of kids presents logistical challenges. We need to keep family members together and find somewhere with sufficient rooms, bedding, towels, basic necessities like food and toothbrushes. With help from my network, I’ve become very proficient at finding the resources needed to help kids recover and reintegrate. But, by the time the kids have been rescued they have gone through a lot of pain and trauma. So I started thinking about how can I prevent them from getting into that situation in the first place. If we can Prevent and Protect, then we don’t need to organise the 3 Rs.

While in Cambodia I heard about families in deep poverty who have nothing to sell except themselves or their children. When a child is sold, usually it’s to work in the sex trade because that generates the biggest financial return. I learned about the story of an 11-year-old girl who was sold but managed to escape before being taken back to her pimp by the police. After having her face cut as punishment she was left on the beach to die. Luckily she was found by ICPN volunteers and sent for medical treatment. When I heard about her story I was filled with pain and anger and I thought there must be something I can do about it. I discovered that her family all dig for rubbish in the city’s main rubbish dump to earn money. Due to her father falling ill the family had to borrow money from a loan-shark for hospital treatment. The debt ballooned and their only option was to sell their eldest daughter to repay the loan-shark.

When I heard this story. I was standing in a bar of a luxury hotel with a US$4 beer in my hand, only ten blocks away from where desperate families were selling their children. I spoke to the hotel General Manager about the issue and he agreed to make a donation. But, making donations wasn’t a long term solution. This started my whole thinking process, what can I ask for that people can’t say no to. I started mapping the hotel waste streams - eg soap, linens, buffet food, plastic bottles, coffee grounds. I calculated that they would have three and a half tonnes of solid soap waste per year which gets thrown away. The hotel manager readily agreed to give me the soap waste. So all I needed to do was figure out how to convert this into a livelihood for people to avoid them needing to sell their children.

I realised that I needed to find a way to turn this discarded soap into new soap bars. I tried a lot of different methods, and finally with inspiration from watching Masterchef’s Gordon Ramsay on TV, I had my recipe. My engineer friends designed a press that could work in a slum without access to energy or running water. The trial, run with a few families at risk of selling their children, was hugely successful and we were ready to market. I persuaded the hotel who had provided the discarded soaps to bulk buy the new soap bars to distribute to the slums as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programme. Soap For Hope was born and offers a long-term opportunity for people to earn a sustainable living and protect their families.

How have you made the difficult choices in your career?

My philosophy is that is easier to get forgiveness than to get approval. I might get a slap on the wrist because I took a risk and made that choice. My guiding value is that, if this project is going to impact people or communities positively, and if it doesn't embarrass my organisation, my family or myself, I get the job done first and I'll get the retrospective approval later.

We lost funding for a programme, Helmets for Kids, that I was running in Vietnam. However, I had already made a commitment to provide helmets to 1500 kids. I decided to downgrade my company business class flight entitlement to economy and use the money saved to purchase the helmets. I got a slap on the wrist for breaking the company’s travel policy, but those helmets saved 65 kids from serious head injuries. In ten years the Helmets For Kids programme has provided nearly 450,000 helmets to children across Vietnam. Statistically this means that approximately 7600 children have been saved from serious head injuries because of the helmets. From these 7600 children, one of them could grow up and find the cure for cancer, be the next prime minister of Vietnam, or be a teacher that inspires another student to be the first astronaut from Vietnam.

What have you learned about inspiring people? What is challenging?

Just walk the talk, actions speak louder than words. There’s a famous quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery who says that if you want your men to build a boat, don't tell them how to go to the forest and chop down trees. Instead, teach them passion for the sea, then they will know instinctively what to do. So this is the attitude I take with my people.

From my gang leader I learned to support and protect my people. I will never throw them under the bus. I will take all the responsibility. I give my people the space to learn and make some mistakes along the way. Honest mistakes are fine, but I will not protect anyone who makes choices that lack integrity or are unethical.

Currently I have programmes in 189 cities in 44 countries around the world. And obviously I can't be at every place. So I have my Stefan-clones running the programmes. After some initial training and guidance, they are on their own, and they find self-empowerment and ownership. They're not doing it because I am their boss as I have no direct reports. I work solo and borrow people. So my Stefan-clones talk to all their hotel managers about their waste streams and how these can be diverted from landfill to help transform peoples’ lives. The hotel managers are happy as they are actively involved in something bigger and my Stefan-clones are happy because they are leading and owning something that is tangibly making people’s lives better.

When leading change in large, complex systems, how do you know you are leading into the right direction?

I collect metrics, not exact amounts of soap waste collected, but approximate figures. From these figures I can calculate how much soap was diverted from landfill, how many new bars of soap we have made, revenue generated, and how much will each person creating new bars earns. These metrics show that we are moving in the right direction. They tell us how many families we have pulled out of poverty. We count the number of families moving out of poverty for each of our programmes using discarded soaps, linens and coffee grinds.

What does having a sense of meaning and purpose mean to you? And how does it apply to your leadership?

The work we're doing is pulling people out of poverty and protecting children from being sold into the sex trade. This is my passion. I believe that no child deserves to be sacrificed so that the rest of the family can survive. The programmes we run are not a one-off thing. Helping to pull a family out from poverty is not just for this week. It has to be ongoing until the family is safe from that risk. If any of the families we support have to return to a life of poverty, then what’s the point? So this is a long term commitment, an ongoing process of monthly monitoring to make sure people have made enough money.

I like to use the word adopt. Adopt in the English language is very special because there's no opposite, there's no dis-adopt or un-adopt. Once you’ve adopted someone you have accepted responsibility until either the person becomes independent, or until end of life.

I will go with you, I will walk alongside you and I will be committed until I'm sure that you can stand on your own. The number of people I support may be small, but my impact is delivering quality, effectiveness, longevity and building relationships and communities.

In your current context, how do you stay connected to what is important to you, both as a leader and as a person?

I've got three biological children who I love and I stay connected with them. But I also have so many non-biological children, the villagers in cemeteries and rubbish dump communities that I look after. When I do things that help people meet their needs, especially during COVID, I feel energised and very connected to them.

When I go to visit a new country, I don't sit in a conference room and have meetings. I go to the poorest slum or the biggest rubbish dump to talk to the people there and my NGOs. I take my Stefan-clones and the hotel staff there and I can see their expressions and the emotions as they see the poverty and the deprivation up close. The sights and sounds they experience there changes them. They feel a sense of why I'm doing this, you can't teach this in a conference room set up.

During COVID I feel like Pablo Escobar stuck in jail. Escobar managed to run his empire from jail, so I should also be able to run my empire during lockdown. Escobar has got very reliable people out in the field. I've also got my team and fortunately many of the NGOs I work with have government approval to move freely within the communities during COVID. So connections and communications are an important aspect in us being able to complete the jobs that need done.

I recently discovered that some sanitary pads have an expiry date, so now I ask supermarkets to give me the expired products rather than throw them away. I give them to women in Indonesian villages who don’t have access to sanitary products and are at risk of sepsis by using unsanitary alternatives such as toilet rolls, old rags or newspapers. This is just the right thing to do because there's a need there.

I just see the need and then find a solution and resources to solve it. I may be unconventional and crazy, and I have made mistakes along the way and gotten into trouble, but it doesn't come from a bad place or for personal gain. I will never give up my dream of making sure I pull a few families out of poverty every year.

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